Coventry Canal Warehouses – A Successful Conservation Project!


Our Secretary, John Payne, shares a personal recollection of one of Coventry’s most successful conservation projects. John writes:

In the 1980s I worked for the Council’s Department of Economic Development and Planning and was heavily involved with the Traditional Urban Programme. As part of that I took on the role of Project Officer for the restoration of the Coventry Canal Warehouses, which had received a grant under that programme. It turned out to be one of the most interesting projects that I was ever involved with.

At that time the old warehouses were in pretty bad shape. The timber framework had deteriorated and there were leaks everywhere. Pigeons had taken over the building and bird shit was the dominant smell.

The buildings were occupied by a strange mix of tenants on temporary licenses. There was the Canal Society who mainly used the building for the storage of canoes (the Mercia Canoe Club). Then there was a model railway club, which used one of the warehouses for a huge rail layout. A Planning Lecturer had set up a boat restoration cooperative at the north end of the buildings, but the main group of users were Art lecturers from Coventry Polytechnic, as it was then, who had formed themselves into the Coventry Artists Group and were using the warehouses as studios.

To move things forward it was necessary to set up a Building Preservation Trust. John Goodman, from Coventry Cooperative Development Agency helped them set up the Coventry Canal Basin Trust and secure charitable status. The objects of the charity are “to preserve for the benefit of the citizens of Coventry and of the nation at large, whatever of the English industrial, historical, architectural and constitutional heritage may exist in and around the Coventry canal basin at Leicester Row, Coventry in the form of buildings of particular beauty or industrial, historical, architectural or constructional interest.

The people involved in the Trust were a varied lot! The Chairman was Brian Saunders, a larger than life businessman who had previously owned Theatre One and Buster’s Nightclub (named after his dog).

The man who carried the weight of setting up the Trust and runs it even today is Alan Dyer. Alan was a Senior Lecturer in the Polytechnic’s Arts faculty. Mandy Havers, crafted life size leather heads, one of which she sold to Paul McCartney. John Yeadon is well known in Coventry for his huge dramatic paintings.

Malcolm Adkins was a Planning Lecturer at the Polytechnic. He had set up a Boat Builders Cooperative and at that time was restoring an old steam launch that had been involved in the evacuation from Dunkirk.

That original group were joined by artist Alison Lambert and a number of other young arts graduates from the Poly. With so many different personalities it felt at times to be like herding cats.


As well as setting up the Trust it was necessary to negotiate a lease from the British Waterways Board. The Trust negotiated a 120 year lease which leaves maintenance entirely the responsibility of the Trust. With a canal forming one boundary of the building that is quite a responsibility.

The vision for the building was not only to restore the buildings, but also to create a home for newly graduated arts students and designers from the Polytechnic. It was found that talented graduates from the Arts courses would leave the city because there was nowhere affordable for them to work. The idea was to provide low cost start up studios and workshops that young artists could rent to give them a leg up into professional practice, as well as support from their peers. Since the restoration, over 300 graduates have been provided with studio and workshop spaces in the warehouse.

The history of the warehouses dates back to the construction of the Coventry Canal in the 18th Century. The canal was a very early contour following waterway which was designed by the great canal engineer James Brindley. Work on the canal started in Longford and worked in both directions, reaching the Coventry Basin on the 10th August 1769 – 250 years ago this year!

The warehouses, were built in four phases between 1787 and 1914. They were built along Warwick Row, which at that time was the main road from Coventry to Leicester.

The Canal Warehouses were Grade II listed in March 1985 as part of the scheme. The listing particulars mention that the building was still in scaffold at the time of the listing.

The Architect for the project was Ken Holmes, a Coventry based practice best known for a number of Churches in the city. They were not known as conservation architects but quickly rose to the challenge.

The builders were another local firm called Sutches. Alan Dyer recalls the high level of skills shown by the old craftsmen, many of whom were nearing retirement age. They worked on the old timbers and created replica ones where the originals were beyond repair using ancient tools such as adzes.

They had 25 men working on the building for two years and old Mr Sutch retired after the Warehouse restoration.

The restoration of the buildings was relatively modest. The original wooden structure was restored and strengthened and the building was made watertight and liveable and most importantly the pigeons were given their marching order.


I remember well the official launch of the restored warehouses by Princess Margaret in 1987. When I turned up there were Police and divers everywhere, checking the drains and the canal for explosives. However I just walked in and nobody asked me what I was doing there.

We were under instructions from the Palace not to provide any alcohol for the Princess and instead we gave her a huge glass of lemon barley water. However when the press wasn’t looking Alison Lambert took her into one of the studios and gave her a nice G&T.

Left to right: Alan Dyer, Princess Margaret, Mandy Havers and Brian Saunders

Alan recalls that the Princess lit up a cigarette at the reception. Her bodyguard walked over to the photographer and put his hand over the lens and said, “Princess Margaret doesn’t smoke”.

One inhabitant of the building, according to Alan is a ghost. “I’ve heard furniture being moved about in a room above mine which was definitely empty and padlocked. A medium visited the Warehouse and without being told about him she identified him as a worker who had fallen down into the loading bay and was killed. We are now used to hearing things being moved in empty rooms. Depends if you believe in ghosts, of course, but this one is quite benign but a bit noisy.

“The ghost has put in another appearance recently. This time watched by people on two narrowboats. He was a middle-aged man in worker’s overalls walking along the quayside carrying a shovel. They watched him till he got to the original end of the building and then he vanished. Spooky!!! But he’s a very friendly presence.”


So what is the justification for saying that this is one of the most successful conservation projects in the city? Well, firstly it was a modest project which restored the buildings without damaging the historic fabric. Some people, who ought to know better, have argued that the buildings should have been converted to restaurants and bars to bring visitors into the Canal Basin. Well you can imagine the damage to the buildings if they had been converted in this way.

Secondly the restoration project has been sustainable. More than thirty years after the completion of the restoration the buildings are still in use doing the same job they were restored for and currently house over 40 artists, designers and craftspeople, besides a thriving canoe club and model railway club. Although not making huge sums of money, the income generated has ensured that the buildings have been maintained, that leaks from the canal have been kept under control and the building is still fit for the future.

Thirdly the project has provided affordable accommodation for several generations of young artists, allowing them to stay in the city and share their artistic skills with us. Unlike many conservation projects, the beneficiaries have been people on low income.

You might disagree, but in my opinion this was a very successful conservation project.

John Payne


Canal Basin 250th Anniversary


Saturday 26th October from 10.00 am to 4:00 p.m. Free Entry

Join the Canal and River Trust for a celebration of the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the first boat carrying coal into Coventry Canal Basin.

Come along to the Coventry Canal Basin and discover its past and how you can enjoy the canal today and help look after this precious part of Coventry’s history.

  • Meet the Canal and River Trust
  • Find out about canoeing on the canal
  • See the display of vintage Riley Cars
  • Witness drumming steam punk style.
  • See how street art is being brought to the canal
  • Discover the history of the Coventry Canal Society

Parking 50p all day at the Leicester Row Car Park.


Pulling the Threads Together – The Mystery of the St Mary’s Hall Tapestry.


Covsoc members Peter Walters reports on a recent Coventry Conference.

Coventry Society members were well represented among a near sell-out audience of around 150 at a conference held in the city’s St Mary’s Hall on September 27 to consider its magnificent Tudor tapestry.

Over nearly seven hours, some of the country’s leading experts attempted to answer questions that surround the tapestry, regarded as the oldest in Britain still hanging on the wall for which it was designed, but in many respects still a mystery.

Where was the tapestry woven and when? Who commissioned it? Who are all the characters flanking the central figures of King Henry VI and his Queen, Margaret of Anjou, and what was the purpose behind the creation of such an expensive work of art?

The conference, organised by Medieval Coventry’s Mark Webb, alongside colleagues from the Tudor Coventry group, opened with a presentation from the distinguished Tudor historian Professor David Starkey, setting out the challenges of trying to ‘read’ a tapestry that does not appear in the official record of the time.

He was followed by Mark Webb, reminding the audience of Coventry’s status as the regional capital of the Midlands in the years 1480 to 1520, and then Dr Joanna Laynesmith from Reading University, a specialist in the study of medieval queenship, whose subject was the relationship between Margaret of Anjou and Coventry, dubbed at the time as her ‘secret arbour’.

Buildings archaeologist Dr Kate Giles, from the University of York, set St Mary’s Hall in the context of other public buildings from the Middle Ages. And the final presentation of the morning session was given by Professor Maria Hayward, a textile conservation expert from Southampton University, who put forward a possible location for the tapestry’s manufacture (the Brussels area) and its probable cost (around £15).

Dr Jonathan Foyle, historian and archaeologist, took as his theme the fifteenth century ‘nine kings’ stained glass window that hangs above the tapestry and put forward a new interpretation of it, including the likelihood that the kings actually appear in the wrong order in the glass.

The Coventry-based independent historian Fred Hepburn, who followed him, applied a forensic interpretation to the tapestry and the characters in it. As a specialist in sixteenth century portraiture, he believed that the character hitherto thought to be Richard III was in fact his father, Richard, Duke of York, and that the tapestry was of a later date than had been supposed – 1510 at the earliest, instead of around the turn of the century.


The final speaker, Mika Takami from the tapestry conservation team at Hampton Court Palace, reported on her earlier brief study of the tapestry, confirming that it is in reasonable condition, but posing further questions about its conservation, in the event that it is possible to access the case in which it hangs and take a closer look.

With so many historians in the room, it was predictable that simple answers to all of the questions surrounding the tapestry would not emerge by the end of the day.

But there are plans to publish the presentations and conclusions of all the speakers and the conference achieved its broader aim of opening up the St Mary’s Hall tapestry to the kind of expert focus and attention it should be exposed to as a work of international importance.

The Impact of Autonomous Vehicles on the Urban Environment

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Ben Flippance, Design Director of IDP Architects, challenged the Coventry Society to think about the impact of autonomous vehicles on the future environment at our September meeting.

The car already shapes the development of our towns and cities. Ben showed us photographs of Las Vegas, Morton in Marsh and the redeveloped Longbridge Car Factory to demonstrate how the car determines the shape of the urban form. At Longbridge, where you pretty much have to arrive by car, the layout is determined by large car parks and large construction units.

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The redeveloped Longbridge showing the impact of cars on design.

Vehicle designers define five levels of automation, ranging from level 0, which is no automation at all to level four, where the vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles.

It is predicted that autonomous vehicles will come to prominence between 2040 – 2070.

Autonomous vehicles offer great opportunities for disabled people, many of whom never leave their home.

Once we are all using autonomous vehicles there is the prospect of faster and safer travel. Vehicles can be put into “road trains” which can allow cars to be closer together at high speed on dedicated smaller roads.

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A “Road Train” of the future

Ben argued that personal ownership of cars is likely to decline because of the legal implication of accidents and it is probable that in the future cars will be owned by car companies and hired or leased to travellers.

Another implication is that less space will be needed for roads leading to the release of land for other uses. When autonomous cars are not in use, they can park themselves away from city centres, on the edge of towns where land is cheaper. With autonomous cars there is less need for the plethora of road signs and street clutter and residential streets could be reclaimed from the dominance of parked cars.

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Once we no longer need to drive our cars there are opportunities to do other things in them, such as office activity, mobile living space and sleeping. Ben went on to suggest that this could be taken further. He argued that there is a continuum running from a car to a big car, a camper van, a motorhome, a caravan, a static caravan and a house and autonomous vehicles could take on any of these roles. Units could be docked together in small to large developments. In a flight of fancy he showed drawings of the possible configurations of autonomous vehicles in the future.

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Of course there were a few non sequiturs in the presentation. It doesn’t seem likely that docking sites and such developments would take place if the vehicles are not owned by individuals. Also the interim period whilst there is a mixed economy of autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles is likely to limit the benefits that could be achieved.

However Ben laid down the challenge of thinking about what the future might be like if we widely adopt autonomous vehicles!

Hollywood Comes to Stoke Aldermoor

Filming of the Italian Job in Stoke Aldermoor

Stoke Aldermoor native, Kevin Conway, has written to us to about his plans to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the filming of the Italian Job.

On Friday 18th October there is a plan to erect and unveil a commemorative plaque to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the making of the film ‘The Italian Job’.

A scene from iconic film was actually filmed in the Stoke Aldermoor area of Coventry. In the film there was a car chase involving that great British car the ‘Mini’.

During the chase there was a scene where the vehicles were driven through a sewer pipe. This part of the film was actually filmed in Stoke Aldermoor on the park next to The Lindfield.

To film this scene, the crew lowered the mini cars into the sewer by crane. The person driving the crane was a Neville Goode, a local driver who still lives in Stoke Aldermoor.

Lowering Mini into sewers for the filming of The Italian Job.

Kevin says “We want to raise awareness of the making of this iconic film and its significance to the local area. We feel that erecting a commemorative plaque will not only increase local peoples’ awareness of this piece of history, but it will also attract visitors from all over the country.

“On the day of the unveiling we have arranged for the Oscar winning film producer, Michael Deeley, who has also produced films such as ‘The Deer Hunter’ and ‘Blade Runner’, to come to Coventry to unveil the plaque. Also accompanying him will be David Salamone who drove the red mini in the film.”

Also at the event will be Remy Julienne, the French Motorcross Champion who was a stunt driver for the film . In his homeland his driving skills were recognised as some of the best and his charismatic driving led him to become France’s most respected stunt drivers. Eventually he set up his own stunt driving company ‘Remy Julienne L’Equipe’, a self-contained team of highly skilled drivers and mechanics. His break onto the international stage came when he was asked to complete the stunt work on The Italian Job, since then Remy Julienne L’Equipe hasn’t looked back. Half a dozen Bond films and other similar action movies have benefited from his stunt work and the impressive portfolio continues to grow.

The plaque will be unveiled at 2 p.m. on Friday 18th October and flowers will be presented to some key people. A signed pair of gloves will be presented to the local crane driver who lent his pair to Remy during filming. The will then be photo sessions and introductions and the event will finish at around 3.30 p.m.

Kevin added “This is a small springboard event we are holding for the City of Culture 2021. We are organizing minis to drive through surface laid tunnels along the original route (parallel with the Linfield). The response to this has been fantastic. Hollywood is coming to Stoke Aldermoor (who would have thought it). Stoke Aldermoor will be a mecca for film buffs and mini enthusiasts around the world.”

Anyone who would like to be involved, or who is able to help in any way, can contact Kevin by calling him on 07434 562909 or emailing